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As a documentary photographer, the most important thing for me has always been the human story. This project has been particularly fascinating because it is a window on to a hidden side of the people who make the restaurant industry happen.
To capture staff preparing and eating their own “family meal”, whether they do it standing up at their station, in the debris of the dining room after service or in the shade of a beautiful garden, gives a very human perspective on how they think about and relate to food. The banter and teasing, the blazing discussions on football and politics and the tales of life and love tell you a lot about what makes a restaurant tick.
Staff meals have not always been something to be proud of. Most chefs have horror stories to share about what they have been fed in restaurants, ranging from scrag ends of meat to nothing at all. But the mindset has changed over the past decade, with more and more focus being placed on the way staff are fed and looked after. At restaurants such as Le Chateaubriand in Paris, for example, someone will simply open the walk-in refrigerator and seize the opportunity to cook with what is available. New ideas are born every day. And for aspiring chefs like Sunny, a dishwasher I met at Attica in Melbourne, it’s a chance to show off their own skills at the stove.
The family meal has evolved to become an extension of why people work in restaurants in the first place. Now more than ever it is fundamental to their success, and symbolic of what makes a good restaurant great.
Location Siena, Italy
Head chef Paolo Lopriore
Chef Paolo Lopriore is a culinary artist who uses ingredients as a painter might use fine oils or watercolour pigments. His backdrop is the Certosa de Maggiano, a Carthusian monastery built in 1314. And his medium is the produce of the surrounding farms and gardens. Like most artists, Lopriore walks an independent path, being less concerned with Michelin stars than with creating dishes that are a true expression of his beloved country.
Il Canto consists of a small team of just four or five, with Lopriore nurturing each of them much like a father. He guides his staff through the monastery’s wild-seeming gardens, little changed from the time when the monks were cultivating the land, and shows them how to translate that natural abundance on to the plate.
This closeness to each other and to local suppliers means that friendships form quickly. The staff meal has become an almost sacred ritual, and Lopriore insists on cooking it himself, even though he rarely eats with his staff. “You’ve got to show your people you care,” he says. “But it’s also essential that they have some space and privacy to be themselves.”
700g pork shoulder
6 juniper berries
5 bay leaves
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 clove garlic, crushed
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
5 red onions, sliced
250ml white vinegar
4 tbsp white wine
Salt and black pepper to taste
All recipes serve six
● Trim most of the surface fat from the pork using a sharp knife. Make 5mm incisions over the surface of the meat. With a mortar and pestle or in a food processor, crush the juniper berries, black peppercorns and garlic. Use to fill the incisions in the pork, along with the bay leaves. Tie the meat at intervals with string to keep its shape.
● Heat half the olive oil in a skillet or frying pan and brown the meat on all sides over a high heat. If making larger quantities, the pork will need to be cut into a size to fit the skillet. Set the meat aside. Put the remaining olive oil in the pan over a low heat. Add the onions; cook, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Transfer the meat and onions to a large, deep saucepan and add the vinegar and wine. Season with salt and black pepper, then add enough water to cover the meat. Bring to the simmer, cover and cook for 90 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan and remove and discard the string. Slice the pork and season to taste. Serve on a bed of onions.
El Celler de Can Roca
Location Girona, Spain
Head chef Joan Roca
I’d heard stories about the family meal at El Celler de Can Roca long before I ever ate there. Every day, the story went, the Roca brothers – Joan, Jordi and Josep – along with their entire staff would walk a couple of minutes up the hill to eat lunch at their parents’ village bistro, also called Can Roca. This ritual intrigued me. It wasn’t just about going to get fed, it was about going home and, in that sense, perhaps the most “family” meal of them all.
When I eventually experienced a family meal with the team, Joan, the eldest of the brothers, explained: “We grew up at Can Roca. The dining room was our playroom. It was very simple, very popular and all about connecting with the people in our community. It still is but it is also important to us that our team makes the physical journey to reconnect with the traditional cooking of the region, to get to know the products and centralise themselves in Catalunya in order to understand what we do and who we are at El Celler.”
Montserrat, the brothers’ mother, is in charge and cooks hearty no-nonsense dishes: huge pots of stewed lentils or grilled botifarra (pork sausages), plates of seasonal vegetables or salads and, always, Montserrat’s legendary calamares à la romana (squid rings in batter).
Squid rings in batter
600g large squid tubes
200g all-purpose (plain) flour
300ml cold water
4 tsp cognac
2 medium eggs, beaten
¾ tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
2l mild-flavoured olive oil
Salt to taste
● Clean the squid tubes and remove outer membrane. Separate the tentacles from the innards. Discard the innards and outer membrane. Slice the squid tubes into 1cm rings. To make the batter, combine the flour, water, cognac, salt, eggs and baking soda in a bowl and whisk until smooth.
● Heat the oil in a large saucepan or deep fryer to 175C. Place some flour in a bowl and pass the squid rings and tentacles through the flour to coat. Working in batches, pass the squid through the batter and then directly into the hot oil. Cook for around a minute until crisp and golden. Remove the squid from the oil using a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Serve hot.
2 tbsp olive oil
6 large, raw, peeled shrimp (tiger prawns)
200g boneless, skinless chicken, cubed
200g boneless, skinless rabbit meat, cubed
200g boneless pork loin, cubed
1 cuttlefish or squid, cleaned and diced
225g onions, chopped
50g green and red bell pepper, diced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
5 tbs fortified wine or brandy
2 tomatoes, skinned and grated
350g Spanish or risotto rice
1.5l water for boiling
1 chicken liver, cleaned and diced
2 tbs fresh parsley leaves
Salt to taste
● Heat the olive oil in a large clay- or cast-iron pot over medium heat. Add the shrimp (prawns) and fry until firm and golden. Remove from the pan and set aside. In the same pan brown the diced chicken, rabbit and pork, adding more oil if necessary. Stir in the diced cuttlefish (or squid) and fry for an additional three minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside until needed.
● Cook the onion and peppers in a separate pan for 10 minutes. Add half the garlic and cook for a further two minutes, then add the onion, peppers, garlic and wine (or brandy) to the meat. After the alcohol has cooked off, add the grated tomatoes, rice and peas. Pour over the boiling water. Season, bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, until the rice is almost cooked but still has a slight bite. Stir in the chicken liver, remaining garlic, cooked shrimp and parsley, and cook for a further two minutes. Remove from heat and serve.
Location Berkeley, California
Executive chef Alice Waters
Head chef Jérôme Waag
When Alice Waters opened her dream restaurant back in the 1970s, it was at a time when organic food, the locavore movement and regarding your staff as family were still considered to be a bit of a hippie thing. But Waters’ food philosophy and belief in treating her staff as she treats her diners have ensured that Chez Panisse has thrived. Everyone talks about it as a place to eat but if you say you’re going for the staff meal, insiders whisper that there’s no place like it – it’s a legend.
Head chef Jérôme Waag explains: “Since we change the menu daily, we have chosen to serve the staff the same food as the diners. We never know if we are going to serve 85 or 100 and there is always extra food. Why cook something different when we only need to cook a few more portions to feed the staff?”
Summer vegetable soup with pesto
For the soup
450g shelled fresh borlotti beans
1 small yellow onion, quartered
1 bouquet garni
450g green beans (French beans)
2 medium courgettes
2 medium yellow squash
120g orzo, conchiglie or orecchiette pasta
Salt and black pepper to taste
For the pesto
6 garlic cloves
2 bunches basil leaves
25g grated Parmesan cheese
120ml extra-virgin olive oil
● Bring a large saucepan or pot of salted water to the boil. Add the shelled beans, onions and bouquet garni. Simmer for 30 minutes, until tender. Meanwhile, cut the green beans, courgettes and yellow squash into small pieces, roughly the size of the top of your little finger. Peel and seed the tomatoes. Place the seeds in a sieve and strain the juice into the bean broth. Chop the tomatoes.
● When the beans are tender, drain them, reserving the cooking liquid. Discard the bouquet garni and the onion. Season the liquid to taste. Add the green beans. Bring the liquid back to a simmer, then add the courgettes and the squash. When the broth comes to a simmer again, add the beans and the tomatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the pasta. Simmer for another 10 minutes. If the broth is too dense with vegetables, add a little more water.
● Meanwhile, make the pesto. Pound the garlic cloves to a paste with a mortar and pestle or purée in a food processor. Add the basil leaves and process to a paste. Add the Parmesan cheese, then drizzle in the olive oil to thin. Let stand in the mortar to serve or turn into a serving bowl.
● When the pasta is cooked, taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. Let the soup sit for an hour, then reheat to serve.
● Serve in warmed bowls with a generous spoonful of the pesto, accompanied by additional grated Parmesan cheese.
Location Copenhagen, Denmark
Head chef René Redzepi
There are approximately 22 nationalities working at Noma, and getting a glimpse of their culture through their food adds an intimacy to the staff meal that is hard to replicate in any other way.
“René wants and expects the staff meal to be ‘the main meal of our lives,’” explains chef Beau Clugston. “It has to be something delicious, cooked with patience and care, but it also has to be something that chefs are committed to. It’s more than just dinner.”
The staff dining room itself is better-looking than many restaurants, with sleek Danish-designed tables and ergonomic chairs. The staff meal, too, is richly diverse and comparatively expensive. But this is Noma, and living the philosophy is all part of the reward, for staff and diners alike.
75g unsalted butter
175g semi-sweet (dark) chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)
2 eggs, beaten
160g dark brown (muscovado) sugar
60g all-purpose (plain) flour
Pinch of salt
60g walnuts, chopped
● In a double boiler or heatproof bowl, set over but not touching a saucepan of simmering water, melt the butter and chocolate. Stir to combine. Remove the bowl from the water and let cool to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 160C. Line the baking tray with parchment paper.
● Whisk the eggs in a stand mixer until they are pale and a thick ribbon falls from the beaters. Gradually whisk in the sugar. Using a large metal spoon, fold the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture. Mix the flour and salt together and sift over the chocolate mixture. Fold in gently, then fold in the nuts. Turn into the prepared pan and bake in the middle of the oven for about 25 minutes until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted in the centre comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into squares.
Location Modena, Italy
Head chef Massimo Bottura
Creative team Davide Di Fabio, Takahiko Kondo, Yoji Tokuyoshi
When the Osteria Francescana got its third Michelin star in 2011, sommelier Beppe Palmieri was so proud that he had three stars tattooed on his inner forearm. That tells you a lot about how the staff feel about this restaurant and their mentor, Massimo Bottura.
Plastered with posters of Bottura’s beloved football team Inter Milan, the staff dining room feels very much like the soccer clubs you find in so many Mediterranean cities. Here, Bottura holds court in a totally overdramatic way but, at the same time, he’s immensely warm and funny. This is a staff meal that is deeply entrenched in good old-fashioned camaraderie, and a strong sense that you’re at home both physically and mentally.
Situated in the heart of the old city of Modena, the restaurant takes over almost an entire block, with the office, kitchen, wine cellar and dining room in one part, the prep kitchen, bakery, pasta making and staff dining room in another. It means that the street is always busy with the restaurant’s comings and goings, so the staff are deeply connected to the local community. Because of that, no matter where they come from, they almost have to become Italian to work here. The staff meal is part of that integration process.
Spaghetti with mussels
1.4kg mussels, debearded and scrubbed
6 tbs extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
30g fresh parsley, chopped
6 tbs white wine
100g cherry tomatoes (preferably Pachino), quartered
1kg fresh spaghetti
2 red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
½ zest of organic lemon
Salt to taste
● Put the mussels in a Dutch oven or casserole dish over medium-high heat. Stir with a spoon from time to time to help the mussels near the top of the pan to reach the bottom. When the mussels have opened wide, drain in a colander, making sure to catch the juice from the mussels in a pan. Discard any mussels that are cracked or have not opened. Remove the mussels from their shells and set aside.
● Place a large saucepan three-quarters full with salted water on to boil for the spaghetti. Put half of the olive oil in a skillet or frying pan over a medium heat and add the garlic and parsley. When the garlic starts to brown, add the wine and tomatoes. Cook for about four minutes or until the tomatoes start to soften. Pour the mussel liquid into the pan, being careful to leave any gritty sediment behind. Bring to a simmer and cook until reduced by half. Add the cooked mussels and keep warm.
● Cook the spaghetti in the boiling salted water until nearly done (al dente), then drain and return to the pan with a little of the cooking water. Whisk in the remaining olive oil, chopped chilli and lemon zest. Stir in the sauce. Divide the spaghetti among warmed bowls, top with the mussels and sauce and serve immediately.
This is an edited extract from ‘Eating with the Chefs: Family Meals from the World’s Most Creative Restaurants’ by Per-Anders Jörgensen (Phaidon, £39.95)